Watching the music video of Yvonne Chaka Chaka’s Umqumbothi is one of my fond memories from growing up. How could men drinking beer from pots look so fresh? While still a child, I immediately decided that Yvonne was the coolest African woman on TV.
Fast forward. 20 years later and Yvonne Chaka Chaka – the Princess of Africa, remains one the most respected voices in and from Africa. She has performed everywhere. From New York, Italy to Nairobi. Name it. She’s performed alongside world stars like Youssou N’Dour, Angelique Kidjo, Bono and Queen, among many others.
I am the last to interview Yvonne during her recent Nairobi visit. ‘Damn – I have to make this good’ – I tell myself. “Are we ready? Twende sasa” She tells me as my camera crew takes forever to set up. We are seated in a tiny room by a café situated in the upper floors of Intercontinental Hotel. She seems a little agitated and tired. Thankfully, she quickly warms up to me as soon as we start, and even makes jokes you would only share with your friends. “I am not as skinny as you! You can see that now I am a mama,” she jests in realization that March 2015 is her special birthday month – she’s turning 50 and celebrating 30 years in the music industry. “Half of 100 is amazing. I can only be happy.”
She is pensive throughout the interview. However, she answers all my questions without a second thought and thoroughly. She’s either done too many interviews or is extremely sharp. I think both. I am so intimidated and at the same time inspired by Yvonne – a true representation of a strong African woman with beauty and brains. “You are what you eat and drink” – all she can reveal about her beauty regime.
Yvonne beams with pride when I tell her how in 1990 – I was the little girl dancing to Umqumbothi in my mother’s living room in a little Kenyan town. She says, I don’t know how I got popular in countries like Kenya, Senegal, Ugandan and places like Mauritania. It must have been the power of radio, TV and my manager at the time because there wasn’t social media then. I did not expect to be so popular in this beautiful continent of Africa. But I am very pleased that I am known in this continent as am a very proud African.”
I wrote songs of freedom in the name of women
With a rich discography including other monster hits like I’m burning Up, Thank You Mr. DJ and Makoti; Yvonne’s songs and music videos remain catchy and popular, still dripping cool. However, only the clever listener can decipher the message behind most of her lyrics.
During the apartheid (1948 – 1994) there was more than racial segregation in South Africa. The ruling government did not allow musicians to directly sing about their own struggle or that of their country. These challenges heavily influenced the direction Yvonne’s music would eventually take. She says, “Growing up in South Africa I knew things weren’t as rosy as everybody thought they were. However, I had the platform and the voice and it was my right to disseminate information and air my views.”
Yvonne then found a secret avenue. She would write songs and then rewrite them to hide direct message. She explains her part in the South African rebellion against the apartheid government, “I Cry For Freedom was initially written for South Africans but SABC could not play its original lyrics.” Yvonne was forced to change the lyrics and had to battle with the idea of balancing the new message with the original. “It became a song about women empowerment and against women abuse”
Another one of my favourite Yvonne songs: Let Him Go was originally written for Mandela. “The message said let him go to his children and family but obviously I couldn’t say Let Mandela Go – I’d have gone to jail, so we changed the song’s packaging to be about a woman loving another woman’s man – you always there when he needs you, where is he now? Let him go.”
The song Motherland was about South Africa and Africa. Produced in 1989, its lyrics were directed to the colonizer: “Who’s that man calling me stranger in my motherland?” Yvonne says, “Things weren’t that bad then because we knew that people were fighting for South Africans to have their rights and to be taken out of the misery of apartheid.”
A year later, Mandela was released from detention. Yvonne recalls meeting Mandela in 1990, soon after his release. “It was amazing! I was lucky to meet Madiba. When you are in a room with him, you felt love and humility. You felt so good. I don’t know how it’s like with people amongst Jesus but when you were around that man you felt such love. I would never want to compare him to Jesus but really he was one of Jesus.”
Yvonne’s latest album, Amazing Man, released in 2013. It’s a “dedicated to Mandela and all the African leaders,” she says, adding, “I could never stop recording, it’s who I am.”
It’s hard for women to break through even in the 21st century
Yvonne is a mother of four boys, “and that includes my husband – the fifth man in my space.” Of all her children only one took after her. Temba is a musician, music producer and writer, and has produced some of her music. She however hopes that he can put the music on hold to complete his degree.
She explains her mission in Africa to Black Roses …
“I have seen how easy it is for men to do whatever they want to do, and how hard it is for women to break through, even in the 21st century. Why can’t we give women a platform to air their views and be what they want to be? Women are still disenfranchised, disintegrated and married off early. I am strongly opposed to 12 to 13 year olds getting married to older men. Why can’t we just let the children be children? Why should I be married to a man who I don’t even love and just be given to him as a young girl? Why am I a woman who when my husband dies his brother will forcibly marry me, why can’t I chose my Peter or James?”
“I respect culture. If people or women are comfortable with that – that’s what they are comfortable with but some people find themselves in those situations or are coerced– those are the people who need us to rescue them.” I also get very upset when Africans fight and kill each other. I would like to have children (both boys and girls) live and learn.”
Awards and accolades
Just like music, Yvonne’s humanitarian work has made a mark and garnered her recognition. She became the first woman to receive the World Economic Forum Crystal Award. Other notable accolades include the 2015 Ubuntu Award for Diplomacy in Arts and Culture and a Continental Lifetime Achievement Award from the president of South Africa.
She says, “I don’t count awards I’ve received because whatever I am doing is not to achieve an award; it’s because I have time to do it, I see the need to do it and I am helping somebody. I appreciate awards and I get very humbled. It means once you are doing something you like, someone is watching and acknowledging. I am thanking God for life and being able to do all the work and the things I love. I do it out of the goodness of my heart and I’ve been given a platform. Maybe, it’s a calling from God.”
Yvonne’s first trip to Kenya was in 1987. Since, she’s become a Kenyan of sorts. She constantly throws in Swahili words and tells me about her friends who include wives of two of the most powerful Kenyan politicians – Aida Odinga (of Kenya’s former prime minister Mr. Odinga) and Margaret Kenyatta (the First lady of Kenya). She says, “I do come to Kenya a lot. My second home is in Kakamega where I work with Vestergaard Frandsen and have a lot of children.
By the time I wrapping up, we’re cool and both relaxed. Yvonne tells me that today is a typical Yvonne-crazy-day with over 10 interviews to do. Her realness reminds me of my mum. “On a normal day I can sleep for 12 hours if I am not at rehearsal,” she says. So what would Yvonne do if not music? I wonder. “I’d have been a hopeless lawyer” – she says with that ‘I’d still be rocking!’ twinkle in her eye.
BONUS: I loved interviewing Yvonne. Thank you very much Chao, Susan Wong and Capital FM Kenya Team.